What have orchestra conductors ever done for us?
For classical music devotees, conductors are possibly the second most important people in the music world, after only composers. And to judge by the relative font sizes on the covers of some CDs you might even be excused for thinking that the role of composers is to write music for conductors to perform. But what do they actually do, these gods of the podium, and why do we give them so much attention?
Let’s start with the bits the public rarely sees: preparation and rehearsals. These are actually the most important parts of the conductor’s work. Preparation starts with programming. This is an art in itself. The old recipe of an overture and concerto followed by a symphony after the interval is still popular with many audiences, orchestra managements and (therefore) conductors. But it’s not exactly imaginative today and conductors who want to stand out from the crowd may well want to break with the model. Economics is never far away. The costs of different programmes can vary wildly. Extra musicians may be required (and need to be paid). Particularly adventurous or rarely performed music may require extra rehearsal time. That costs money. Can an orchestra afford it? And this is even before we start to think about the challenges of filling seats with a particular program.
The encyclopedic conductors who conduct all periods, national styles and genres seem to be getting rarer in recent decades. We live in a world of specialization and conductors are no exception. Today, many of the A-list international conductors have established “brands” as period performers, twentieth-century specialists or experts in a particular national repertoire.
Once the program is fixed the conductor sits down to learn the scores. Many conductors play the piano and undertake score study at the keyboard. The goal is, as Gustav Mahler is reputed to have said, to ensure that the score is in the head, and not vice-versa! There is another joke among conductors that says: “conducting is easy, you only need to know two things: what you want, and how to get it!” The knowing what you want bit is what preparation is all about. Many people assume that music notation is wonderfully precise. The opposite is true. Every score is full of hundreds of grey areas that require decisions and interpretations. Tempos, relative volume levels within the orchestra, interpretations of the work’s structure and the relative prominence of its various sections are just some of the most pressing questions that conductors need to deal with long before the first rehearsal. Many, many hours of careful work have already gone into preparation before the conductor strides out before the orchestra for the first rehearsal starts.
Rehearsals; there are never enough! Rehearsals cost big money and in this case time really is money. The number of rehearsals is always a compromise between cost and performance quality. These days, three or four 150-minute rehearsals for an orchestral concert is as close to a standard as you are going to get. Many orchestras and conductors get by with fewer, five or more is a rare luxury. So conductors have to be careful time managers. The auditorium lights go down on performance night whether the conductor has got to rehearsing the finale of the symphony or not! Excessive time spent getting the opening of the overture just so may make for a nerve-wracking performance of the finale. And nothing annoys orchestral musicians more than conductors who run overtime during rehearsals. Talking too much by conductors is another bugbear among players. Music begins where words end and players expect conductors to communicate their interpretative ideas with their hands and eyes rather than with long monologues that eat up rehearsal time.
Let’s assume our conductor has survived the rehearsal period unscathed (it is not always the case!). Performance time is here. Now quite different skills are required. Now hopefully all the preparation will pay off. Trust is an essential element in a great performance. A certain excitement should be in the air, but not the kind that comes with fear that someone (perhaps the conductor) is going to slip up. The conductor wants the players to give their very best and it is his or her job to create the environment in which they can. Pretentiousness, arrogance or an aura of being the centre of things don’t contribute to such an atmosphere. And yet a certain amount of leadership, in the best sense, is also required. Professional musicians don’t generally need to be told when to play, but do want to know how the conductor wants a passage played. So a good cue does both. And good conductors realise that they are also conducting the audience. Many of those dramatic cues to the trumpet or timpani player that living-room conductors so relish are really aimed at the audience and help listeners make sense of the music.
Finally, let’s remember that the conducting profession is shaped like a triangle. At the top is a select group of stars who embody what most of us think of as a “conductor”. But further down is a much broader substructure of less frequently hailed practitioners. They conduct regional or youth orchestras. They conduct music theatre shows or provincial opera companies. They may never become household names among music lovers, but they provide the shoulders on which the greats stand.
Conducting and conductors are a source of fascination for many people. It can be a hard career. It’s not all glamour, and the glamour elements can be the most irritating. Still, as Erich Leinsdorf said at the beginning of his book on conducting, there are few other professions in which you work with genius on a daily basis.
About Brian Long: Brian Long studied music in Melbourne and Vienna, where he lived from 1991 to 2001. He teaches in the Arts and Cultural Management program at the University of Melbourne and is currently researching the efficacy of self-management in orchestras. Brian Long has also created, for anyone who would like to join, a terrific platform for classical music discussions and listening: the Great Composers Appreciation Society. Each month, we select music to listen to and discuss. Along the way, we share our concert experiences and discuss all manner of things musical.
Listening List: Conductors in Rehearsal
Leonard Bernstein (rehearsing Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations with the BBC Symphony Orchestra)
Nikolaus Harnoncourt (rehearsing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5)
Additional Resources on Conductors and Conducting
Conductor Marin Alsop talks about conducting here (video).
Conductor David Bloom talks with Prufrock’s here.
Conductor Riccardo Chailly (who as a young man was assistant conductor to Claudio Abbado at La Scala) talks about conducting here (video).
Conductors Alondra de la Parra and Simone Young talk about conducting here.
Conductor Sakari Oramo talks with David Nice about conducting on The Arts Desk here.
Conductor Simon Rattle in rehearsal with Berlin school students here.
Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen talks about conducting here (video).
Conductor (and composer) Leonard Bernstein and the making of West Side Story (the studio recording) here (video). With thanks to shoreacres for noting this. The video offers a vivid example of the porous boundaries among musical genres. At the beginning of the video, Bernstein talks about how he prepared for the recording sessions—and he composed the score.
Bonus Track. The Pinnacle: Claudio Abbado conducting the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in Mahler’s Ninth Symphony.